What’s a Half-Baked Volcano?

As it turns out, volcanoes can rock the Earth and change the landscape, yet never spew lava. Such is the case with Big Bend National Park in Texas, and they half-jokingly call it a half-baked volcano.

The Little Volcano that Couldn’t

Think of Mont St. Helens–a lot of ash, a lot of activity, but not the full eruption we make for an elementary school science project.

Mount St Helens

Mount St. Helens
Photo courtesy of Bing.com

Massive amounts of ash fell, changing the color of the Big Bend area. Once hardened into rock, this white ash is called “tuff.”

Tuff at Big Bend National Park

Magma boiled underground, but never ruptured the surface. Magma is (for our purposes) the same as lava, but when still underground, it’s called magma. Kinda like blood is the same in your body and out, but different colors depending on where it is. This magma movement created rolling “hills” throughout the park. Side by side there are cascades that would make Ireland jealous and flat planes of desert.

magma mounds

Driving through Big Bend National Park

Click the pic to advance the slideshow of the park. Panoramas here are often 360 degrees–not something you can always do!

Desert Animals

The combination of desert and mountainous areas, plus the Rio Grande, brings an interesting collection of animals.

I was not expecting these…

Bear and Mountain Lion signs

Never saw one, but learned that there really is an animal called a packrat! They collect plant material, bones, animal droppings–whatever they can find–and pile it over the entrance to their burrows. Then they pee on the debris to stabilize it. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Hoarders, they pretty much do the same thing.

Lest We Forget It’s a Desert

10 inches of a rain a year. That’s it. And it shows. Some cacti go dormant, waiting for the tiniest drop of water. Within 24 hours they resume green and bloom. Add summer heat and the basin floor can reach 180 degrees. So very glad I was there in January!

Why is it Called “Big Bend”?

Because the Rio Grande takes a massive turn in this area. A big bend, some would say.

aerial of big bend

Photo courtesy of Bing.com

On the Border of Mexico

That Rio Grande separates the United States from Mexico. Rangers scold and scare at every possibility, warning that crossing it would be illegal entry. And buying trinkets from the Mexican folk who leave goodies on the trails is also illegal–trade, they’re crossing the border inappropriately, etc.

I was duly responsible and overly nervous.

Dad put the fear of G-d into me about not going to Mexico. Single woman + mobile home = good opp for cartels and such. A male friend who lives in Mexico confirmed Dad’s assessment, researched drug activity locations, and advised me not to camp in the park. But once I got to Alpine TX, over an hour away, everyone in the campground was going to the park for day trips. They all said it was safe–including the border patrolman who was my neighbor. So I mustered my fraidy-cat-ness and went. I’m glad I did. And I also stayed extra alert. To be clear, it’s not a fear of Mexicans specifically, but anyone who serenades from one side of the river for hikers to leave money in a jar on the other side.

mexico from Big Bend National Park

Note the canoe to bring tzotches over the river. Some folks set up a full camp, with laundry hanging on the line.

Forget About Solo Hiking

Always cautious with my route and its length, and choosing trails that are more populated, BBNP sent me to an extra level of security. The combination of wandering gypsies plus hikes in the river basin warranted extra precaution. I accosted couples at the trailhead and asked if they would adopt me for the hike. They seemed happy to do it.

And that’s how I got to go on one of the best hikes of my career. Santa Elena Canyon takes you both to the river’s edge and on cliffs high above it. While we may be hundreds of feet high, the canyon walls ascend 1,500 feet for eight miles. In some places the canyon is only 30 feet wide! We couldn’t access that by foot, and the water levels are down, but in the summer the rafting is said to be divine. The river that runs through it is rich with sand and salt, forming a liquid sandpaper that carves the canyon. When in a raft or canoe, you can hear the grist on the vessel.

So why was this one of the best hikes? Because it was shaded but had cascading light. Because it had a destination and not just meandering. Because it had boulders that scared the bejeezus out of me for the fact that they once fell. Because it was proof of the Earth moving, not simply a pretty view.

Click on the pic to advance the slideshow of hiking through both Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas Canyon.

Sunrise, Sunset

The difference of light from morn to night in the exact same place was intoxicating. Soft at sunset, vibrant at sunrise. And the sun wasn’t physically visible from the vantage for either occasion. It cast its light from afar, with subtlety and strength.

Click the pic to advance the slideshow.


What’s the best hike you’ve been on?
If you’re not a hiker, think of a walk or a city stroll.

4 Responses


Your pictures are wonderful!

Mimi – Thanks. It’s pretty easy when the environment is so divine.


I like that your description couple details with feelings. Let’s the reader be part of your experience. So my best hike might be vicariously through your writing. My worst one was getting lost. Made it to a road that cut through the park, but by then it was dusk and we didn’t know which way to go. The happy ending came when a biker came by, cut short his biking to return for his truck to take us to our car. Oh yes, I was scared.


Beautiful pics! Did you really get up early enough to see the sun rise??? 🙂

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